President's trip nothing but trouble on ground

October 28, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- While President Clinton tried to coax Jews and Arabs to make peace yesterday, he failed to get them to give him a tour of the Old City.

The obstinacy of Jerusalem's Israeli mayor and Palestinian mosque officials forced him to give up his plans for a late-night tour of the religious sites here.

That was only one of the unexpected results of Mr. Clinton's visit to Jerusalem. He came to Israel speaking of peace, but his presence caused mostly trouble and hard feelings.

His entourage of more than 60 cars reigned over Jerusalem so thoroughly that several of the city's main streets were closed, and the center city looked like a ghost town.

His very visit brought orders to some Palestinians -- including a dozen or more who work at the U.S. Consulate -- not to show up for work. Israeli secret police considered the Arabs a "security risk."

His plan to visit religious sites so inflamed tensions between Muslims and Jews over who controls the Old City that in the end it was the president who backed down.

"We don't mind him being here, but it's a real headache," said Marek Motti, the owner of a print shop in downtown Jerusalem.

"This all could have been done with less panic," he said.

Mr. Clinton, who had been here on a religious tour 13 years ago, had fit a quickie tour of religious sites into his schedule somewhere just before midnight last night.

But he hadn't counted on a major fight over who would be his tour guide.

Jerusalem's right-wing mayor, Ehud Olmert, insisted that any presidential tour of the Old City must be led by him.

But the United States does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the areas captured in the 1967 Mideast War, including Arab East Jerusalem and the Old City.

And the Palestinians would not stand still for a tour headed by the Jewish mayor through areas they consider theirs. The custodians of the Al-Aqsa mosque threatened not to open the doors to the shrine.

"We own this part of the city, not Olmert," said Musa al-Qaq, a Palestinian shop owner in the Old City. "The invitation has to come from us."

"The moment they say to the mayor, you can't visit a certain part, then a political problem is created," Mr. Olmert responded.

"I think if the president had toured with me, it would have been a natural thing."

Mr. Clinton's staff tried for two days to get Mr. Olmert to relent, and finally scrubbed the visit. Instead, Hillary Rodham Clinton paid a fast visit to the Western Wall, sacred to the Jews.

She approached the wall in the section reserved for women, spent a moment in contemplation, then retreated to her limousine. She did not try to visit Al-Aqsa or the chief Christian shrine, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

"We insisted that Israel's sovereignty and the unity of Jerusalem not be hurt," crowed Cabinet minister Moshe Shahal, who went with Mr. Olmert and Mrs. Clinton to the Western Wall.

Feeling more hurt by the visit of the president were Palestinians who work at the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem and at the King David Hotel in western Jerusalem, where the Clintons stayed.

They were told not to report to work for two days. The Israeli secret police considered them a security risk, according to sources.

"I was frustrated, and shocked and mad," said Veiga Hanna, 24, a trilingual receptionist-cashier at the hotel.

"I don't feel like I'm one of them now. I want to ask why they do this to Arabs?"

"Between 20 and 30 employees were given leave," said Haim Shkedi, an official of the King David Hotel. He said the police wanted security checks on all workers, and "those whom it was difficult to check were given leave."

Even more startling were similar orders given about a dozen workers at the U.S. Consulate. When the consulate objected, a NTC few of the Palestinians were allowed to work, according to a source.

Asked for an explanation, officials at the consulate would not reply.

The worries about the danger of terrorism prompted Israeli and U.S. security agencies to put major parts of this city of a half-million under virtual siege.

Helicopters hovered overhead, bus loads of police clogged major intersections and snipers were posed on roofs.

The police ordered major roads closed and -- without warning -- ordered some streets cleared of parked cars. About 30 vehicles were towed away.

The street closings gave downtown Jerusalem a vacant look.

Stores remained open, their proprietors staring forlornly at empty shops.

"I normally sell 400 falafels," said Yigal Mazor, who runs a popular sandwich shop on Jerusalem's downtown pedestrian mall. "Today I only sold 100. I figure Mr. Clinton owes me about $1,000 for lost business."

But Mr. Mazor and other business owners took the torpid business in good humor.

"It's OK if it's only once in a while," said Benny Nuri, 34, manager of a shoe store that logged only five customers all day. "We can afford it for one day."

Buses stopped running on the closed routes, stranding employees who had not escaped from work before Mr. Clinton's late-afternoon arrival in town.

"I don't know how I'm going to get home," said Adi Edov, a waitress ending her shift in a mostly empty Jerusalem coffee shop.

But she thought her problem overshadowed by the benefits of Mr. Clinton's visit.

"It think it's great to have him here. We're only a little country, and it shows he's interested in us," she said.

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